By Karen Price | June 30, 2019, 1:13 p.m. (ET)

Members of the U.S. men's indoor volleyball team celebrate at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on June 30, 2019 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

 

The U.S. men’s volleyball team qualified for the Final Six of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League before the tournament even started by virtue of acting as host, which certainly has its advantages.

While not to say that the first 15 matches of the tournament aren’t important, it is a grueling pool play schedule that sends teams all across the world over the span of five weeks. With that in mind, many of the team’s usual starters, including Olympians Matt Anderson, Max Holt, Micah Christenson, Taylor Sander, Aaron Russell, David Smith, Kawika Shoji and Erik Shoji stayed in Southern California to train for the final while their younger, less experienced teammates traveled to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for the final three matches of round-robin play this weekend. 

With Thomas Jaeschke, who recently returned to the team after recovering from a torn ACL, the lone Olympian on the roster and assistant coach Rob Neilson acting as head coach, the U.S. men opened play against the host nation on Friday and won the first set but couldn’t keep it going in a 3-1 (21-25, 25-19, 25-23, 25-23) loss. 

Ben Patch led the team in scoring with 22 points on 22 kills, while Jaeschke added 13 points on 10 kills and three aces.

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Next up was Serbia, which ended with a result just the opposite of Bulgaria. Team USA started off with a first set loss but turned it right around and improved to 8-6 with a 3-1 (14-25, 25-20, 29-27, 26-24) victory. The U.S. never trailed in the second set, while the third turned into a back-and-forth affair toward the end as Serbia took three set points. But Serbia’s mistakes hurt it as the U.S. fought back and eventually won on an ace by Garrett Muagututia. 

Muagututia would finish as the leader for the U.S. with 14 points on nine kills, two blocks and three aces. Kyle Russell scored 13 points on 11 kills and two blocks, and Jake Langlois, who came in for T.J. DeFalco after the first set, had 12 points on nine kills and three blocks. 

That left just Iran, the toughest competition of the weekend at 12-2 going into Sunday’s match. The starters included Langlois, Patch and Muagututia, and Langlois and Patch each kicked into action with five points apiece in a first-set victory. With Patch continuing to lead the way in scoring, the U.S. rattled off victories in the next two sets for a 27-25, 25-21, 25-20 sweep against the No. 2-ranked team in the tournament. Patch finished with a team-leading 16 points and Langlois 13.

The U.S. finished pool play with a 9-6 record.

The Final Six kicks off July 10 in Chicago. 

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.